They came in all forms, winged, buzzing, and pollinating their little hearts out. The seeds I’d ordered through catalogs in the dead of winter, nurtured from faith under grow lights, transplanted to flats that waited through a cold spring, finally planted in ground later than usual — were waiting for them. The targets were a mix and a gamble, all of them. Some blooms had started out strong and sure, budding and expected to perform, only to be cut down in their prime by ravenous rodents or hoofed invaders. The weak and spindly that were not expected to survive have surprised and surpassed expectations, a reminder that struggle can create strength.
I am always humbled as a gardener to witness the urge to grow and flourish at all costs, to sacrifice the root and plant for the flower and seed, the extraordinary acrobatics required to fertilize and perpetuate all species. I’ve seen nature be cruel but also extravagantly generous. In the garden, as in our human culture, bullies and victims exist under our noses, those who succumb senselessly to infestation and the lucky ones who flourish where they are planted.
On nature’s stage, her dramas and comedies put any of Shakespeare’s plays to shame since life and death is not an illusion to be performed the next day. There are no repeat performances with the fear of winter’s breath blowing down the necks of those desperate to reproduce for another year. Every day I stand in my yard and gaze in wonder at the bumblebees wearing their pollen pantaloons that are so full they can barely fly, cardinals gorging themselves on the bowing sunflower heads, lightening bugs who are still shining for their mates as autumn kisses the breeze and crows congregating for their rowdy fall fraternity parties in the trees.
The sun wanes and our shadows lengthen after cicadas march down into earth for another seventeen-years’ sleep, monarchs lay their eggs on the way to Mexico, the honey bees gather their last golden mead, goldfinches rear their final offspring and we don our masks for another season.
June and July became blurred by extremes in rain and heat. Rainfall totals broke a 165-year-old record in my area and when the sun turned red from wildfires in the west bringing the heat with it, our wet soil cracked under the strain. We were told to pull all bird feeders and drain the baths when a mysterious illness started killing the songbirds. Scientists still don’t know the source. Luckily, all the flowers I have endlessly planted have come to the rescue for pollinators and seedeaters who flock around the house. We harvest from our vegetable garden daily now, and I am thankful to freeze the bounty as we begin to don our masks again with the new variant.
With all the torrential changes in weather, mood and outlook, I have learned to go with the flow and let the fear drain away. My soul is too exhausted to hold on to the terror of what will be, adrenaline racing with worry at every news update and media blitz. I consciously change the station in my head and head out to the garden or sit beneath a tree old enough to remember another kind of blitz, its roots burying the ills of man to feed the tender shoots of a new beginning, nibbled on by fresh fawns who have existed for only a second in the world, but who are already wiser than I.
Autumn is usually a dry season, but this year who knows? With reservoirs full and rivers overflowing, water will still find a way to leave and wind its way toward the collective oceans. And like the summer itself, I cannot hold the water back or prevent it from moving on. Even the dew will disappear one day soon, to be replaced by its cousin the frost.
Until then, I admire those sparkling jewels I find displayed in the morning garden.
I was preparing my usual last-minute blog post for May when one of my eyes began it’s long-awaited vitreous detachment during the Memorial Day weekend as a consequence of my eye surgeries last year. Most of June and two retinal tears later, I can finally bend over to plant my garden and lift the watering can again. I’m grateful for technology and medical advances but there are always nerve-wracking tradeoffs and repercussions to any alterations that didn’t come in my prenatal package.
After a relatively quiet spell of weather in May (although unusually cold) we were treated to a huge tropical storm system that precipitated a deluge of over four inches of rain in less than two hours. My family thanked our lucky stars that we lived on a hill as my husband and I bailed out our basement in the middle of the night while hundreds of sirens wailed eerily all over town for water rescues after flash flooding roared through downtown, the nearby university and right down the hill from us. I don’t think I’ve ever lived through so much rain in such a short period of time–over seven inches in three or four hours!
Someone local was wondering what we had done to deserve plague, locusts and now floods. But I surmise that we only have ourselves to blame. Oh, and the locusts are really beneficial cicadas that turned our backyard into the land of plenty for many critters and birds and left my garden alone, although there were some comical cicada rescues from my row covers and barricades to keep wildlife from eating all our vegetables. Despite the setbacks we were able to harvest lots of lettuce, broccoli, kohlrabi, cabbage and a new one–Romanesco cauliflower (or broccoli depending on who you talk to).
Speaking of wildlife, we watched the birth of deer triplets over Memorial weekend from our kitchen window. I was all set to work in my backyard that morning until I saw mama deer giving me the stink eye from our neighbor’s yard. Something about her behavior and long-forgotten childhood memories of our dairy cows about to give birth alerted me that we should stay inside and just watch. The process took all morning, and the deer’s efficiency in birth, cleanup and nursing without any human intervention was astounding to me after witnessing so many difficult birthing sessions with cows and sheep. Sadly, two fawns did not survive beyond the first week and the remaining one has a terrible leg injury. I can’t imagine trying to raise fawns in a heavily populated urban environment. There are so many hazards and predators, including a bobcat recently spotted at the edge of town.
Finally, I’m very grateful to my husband and daughter for stoically planting the multitudes of seedlings in June that I grew and refused to compost. Packs of annuals, native perennials and vegetables sat in trays for days while I recuperated from my laser eye repairs and tried to figure out where to put them all. (Note to self next year: Don’t plant or buy anything unless you have a place for them.) Now in year two, I’m still figuring out sun and shade movement around our home, and where to place containers for best effect. The new patio provides full morning and shifting afternoon sun that can be a challenge for demanding plants, and the recently constructed raised beds still need lots of amendments (I’m tracking down some organic dried chicken manure even as I type).
After the big June monsoon you’d think we would settle down into drought, but we seem to be trying to turn into the northern tropics, which our neighbor’s cursed bamboo is wildly celebrating by taking over the block along with all the groundhogs, rabbits, chipmunks and squirrels that reside in there. I’m half-expecting to see a panda emerge from the depths of his jungle any day now and wander down the street. If June is any indication of things to come, I won’t be a bit surprised.
This February we experienced the deepest snows and coldest temps since moving into our little yellow bungalow. I was beginning to think we lived in a southern climate until the negative windchills rattled our windows and deep drifts muffled my garden dreams. But as is the course of all extreme weather events, the pendulum has swung back to a lovely week of balmy breezes and the recent polar vortex fades into memory but for a few scraps of white clinging to the edges of driveways.
Once again we count ourselves fortunate as we watch the aftermath of grid failure in warmer lands completely unprepared for such arctic extremes. No doubt lives have been totally disrupted and altered by conditions that they couldn’t control. In a heartbeat all that you’ve counted on can disappear along with power, food and water, violently shoving your life in a very different direction. I was reminded of the polar vortex in January 2014, when our house in the suburbs suddenly lost electricity after a heavy snow along with one other house right before the temperatures dropped forty degrees overnight to -11 Fahrenheit. By the next day, 100,000 households were out all over the city with restricted travel, but we were the only ones in our neighborhood.
Luckily, my family could stay with our generous neighbors across the street while waiting three days for the electric company to get around to restoring power for only two houses (which consisted of flipping a switch at an electrical box by the street). In the meantime our house temperature dropped to below freezing and every liquid froze (even the shampoo) as my husband kept a fire going in the fireplace during the day. We made the wise decision to drain the water pipes which saved our plumbing. Our neighbors in the same boat were not so fortunate, sustaining $20,000 in water damage.
Afterward, many suggested we get a generator or a wood stove to prevent a repeat of a supposedly rare occurrence (which seems to be occurring more often now). The street-side power station that malfunctioned was later replaced. But I couldn’t seem to get warm again even after the house eventually thawed out and the frozen bottles returned to liquid. Our illusion of safety was gone, and we were tired of maintaining a home that was too big for us as we’d outgrown the suburban lifestyle. Over the years we’d dismissed the nudges of change as merely annoying little snowballs that finally grew in size until reaching avalanche proportions on the heels of an arctic clipper. I feared an iceberg was next.
And so four months later we put our house on the market and sold it in a day. We gave away most of our furnishings and settled into a two-bedroom apartment with the assurance that the complex had backup generators. Snow removal was included in the rent, and we could walk to stores for food and supplies. But the appliances were all electric and there was no fireplace. In extreme cold the fire sprinklers in our ceilings would have burst and we couldn’t turn off our water and drain the pipes if we wanted to. In three years, we would move on as part of the five-year odyssey to find community and sustainability in an increasingly isolated world where you barely know your neighbor.
I will never forget the family who lived right next door to us in the suburbs who knew of our plight but never even offered to run an extension cord over to power our portable heater for an hour or so. To add insult to injury, our house sat dark and frozen while their house was luridly aglow from the extravagant Christmas decorations that were still up and running. As I watch the same selfish and negligent acts unfold on the news while Texans struggle to survive, I wonder if we will ever find a way to get along and work together in community with such a sense of distrust and entitlement rampant in our culture while the lack of foresight and preparedness continues to undermine our very existence as a species.
These days we still don’t have a fireplace or generator but our wishlist for power backup includes solar and a wood-burning stove. For now our gas stovetop will have to do.
Time once again for the annual unveiling of my word for the year, a theme that always becomes eerily accurate as the months flow by. Last year’s “Rebirth” certainly lived up to its potential by anticipating my eye surgeries as well as our recent relocation. Little did I know how life-changing 2020 would be in my little corner of the world and all over the planet as social, political and scientific transformation was brought to disruptive, often violent, life.
Since I began to stay home and avoid public spaces last January in preparation for my medical procedures, I have essentially been homebound for a year now. My new life became very limited in scope, forcing an internal perspective and examination which I had been avoiding for decades. For me, it was much easier to mold my motivations and actions around someone else’s agenda than to determine my own. For one, it’s easier to blame the other party when plans don’t work out, which is usually the case when you aren’t on the right path.
In retrospect, my forced isolation in childhood and subsequent expulsion when I no longer fit the family dynamic catapulted me into a series of careers and relationships that never seemed to work out. Like the prince in Cinderella, I searched tirelessly for someone or something that would fit my life’s slipper without really examining the shoe itself. What color and style was it, what was it made of, and where did it come from? I acted out the traditional roles of artist, writer, academic, teacher, librarian, proofreader, shopkeeper, caregiver, house cleaner, and office assistant to fulfill others’ wishes and unfulfilled dreams, and conform to the expectations of my generation. In many cases I didn’t feel I had much choice as a female raised by a woman who thought my role was to marry a farmer and stay at home while also insisting I go to college and become a famous writer or artist.
Needless to say I was confused. What I really wanted was to work in the family nursery and tend to the colorful seas of annuals, geraniums, poinsettias and tropical houseplants in magical kingdoms under glass. I come from a long line of growers and farmers who passed their green thumbs along to me. But due to misogynistic views and family dysfunction, that dream was not to be. So I created gardens for myself: an entire bedroom full of houseplants in high school, an assortment of zonal geraniums my father grew wholesale that I dragged around for all four years at college, an obsessive collection of herb plants at a duplex as a newlywed, a square-foot garden hand-dug while recuperating from a difficult pregnancy, backyard raised beds as first-time homeowner, an ambitious but doomed try at homesteading 5,000 square feet of mule pen out in the country, feeble attempts at container gardens in the suburbs and finally a stint at running a community garden at a retreat center with no help from the community.
Which brings me to today’s little California bungalow on a very narrow urban lot in a neighborhood that encourages gardens rather than lawns. In fact “Gardens” is in the name of this century-old historic suburb built for limestone, railroad and factory workers in a town known for its creative quirkiness. Last year, despite some medical setbacks and supply difficulties, I managed to start some seeds, buy plants, build a cold frame and create garden beds with my husband’s help. This year I’ve ordered seeds early and made big plans to replace our barren lawn with vegetables, flowers and native plants while continuing my quest for year-round harvests. The photo shown above of my cold frame was taken two days ago, in January. I can’t wait to winter-over more vegetables and greens next year.
Which finally brings me to my word for 2021. After last year’s traumatic and frightening process of birth, there has to be “Growth.” Now that I’ve found my place in the world, I have the opportunity to grow, literally and spiritually on my own terms. Will I create art? Well, yes, gardening is an art form, and I plan on producing some garden-inspired art, too. Will I write? I certainly hope so. There’s much to be noted in tending a garden, particularly nature’s lessons in humility. Will I engage with others? That remains to be seen, but I fervently wish to contribute to my little neighborhood and provide a better habitat for wildlife, especially the insect world that is rapidly vanishing while we wait for vaccines and herd immunity.
I guess the glass slipper may have turned into a gardening clog, but it’s still beautiful to me.
The reckless spells conjured by careless and cruel humans over the last two months cast long shadows that have reached even my little haven. Still, I do what I can, harvesting sage, rosemary, lavender, and marigold petals while stocking up on hope and optimism for the long-predicted winter isolation. Moon water collected to cleanse, and palo santo lit to protect. Ballot mailed in early, chest freezer filled, local trips limited, and projects lined up to take my over-active mind off whatever sensationalized news darkens my doorway.
Will all of this be enough to keep my loved ones and me sane and healthy? The specters of unexpected illness and poverty from a broken healthcare system and looming economic crash haunt my dreams at night and my social media by day. I wish I possessed a crystal ball, but they are all backordered from China. Still strangers in a new town, my only scrying comes from out the window where I gaze upon our neighbors like socially distanced guests at a masked ball. I can only guess at their lives and affiliations by symbolic porch decorations or political signs. Rental houses sit empty with mailboxes overflowing or grow neglected, covered in vines.
Deer wander through our yards in broad daylight, perusing me like I am the one trespassing, and rightfully so. Squirrels have formed their own militias, armed with nuts and determined to show us who’s boss. The trees are slow to turn, as if reluctant to move into autumn, and exceptionally warm temperatures have led into an uneasy Indian summer where the enchanted garden still hangs on despite the frosts.
Safe for now in our little cottage on the hill, a bubbling pot of soup on the stove and a line of salt on the threshold, we light a candle and sit waiting for what is to come, spellbound in a captive world.
As a kid in the Seventies I was obsessed, like most of my age group, with J. R. R. Tolkein’s world of hobbits, elves, goblins and other evil forces as thinly veiled references to the real-life world conflicts experienced by the author and his generation. While I gobbled up all three books that compose TheLord of the Rings trilogy and the very dense Silmarillion, my favorite has always been The Hobbit, with its homey descriptions of hobbit dwellings and lifestyle as well as the humble but hospitable sanctuaries offered during the travelers’ perilous journeys through strange, magical lands.
I took great comfort in the hobbit habits of generosity and good will when odd strangers showed up at the door, even while they ate and drank you out of house and home. Bilbo may have had his misgivings, but he was determined to uphold his role as a good steward to his guests. In the age of technology, I’ve continued to indulge my childhood longings by binging on Instagram images of the amazing Hobbiton movie set in New Zealand and by appreciating the popularity of tiny homes, tree houses and the whole Hygge movement on the Internet.
I’ve always been drawn to creating artful, comforting and inviting sanctuaries in the many rooms, apartments and homes I’ve lived in. I feel at home in funky neighborhoods with more charm than affluence. Recently I’ve become obsessed with a local neighborhood of colorfully painted old bungalows sporting messy porches with fat felines and yards full of crazy art and wildly overgrown flowerbeds, a well-loved community garden and a little park with a children’s storytime theme sponsored by the city’s public library.
On Sundays my small family walks through these peaceful streets and I find myself back in the Shire, wishing that I wouldn’t have to go back to the dire news stories and inescapable violence broadcast over the media. I want my own modest house to be magically transformed into one of these funky oases that have taken decades to create in that older part of town. I wonder if, like Bilbo Baggins, my purpose is to leave for parts unknown or to remain in my hobbit world, tending a garden and keeping the hearth fire lit for afternoon tea and the other daily rituals that become so sacred in a world at war.
I used to scour Tolkein’s maps of Middle Earth on his inside book covers and follow the heroes’ journey, having the luxury of knowing what lies ahead. Nowadays, I stand at the highest point in my county, hoping to see the path clearly marked in these troubled times but the horizon and my fate are hidden from me. Am I to stay put and keep the home fires burning? Or will I be called back on the road to fight a formidable foe? Only time (and the next chapter) will tell.
In the meantime, I stock my pantry for weary travelers, and plan my next garden.
Numbers rising, mandatory masks, hospitals full and bars closed. All this and the college students haven’t really arrived yet. My world consists of wandering up the street to my daughter’s house, forays into our vegetable garden and pickups at the grocery store. Occasionally we don protective armor to hit the hardware superstore at the earliest hours and never on weekends.
My husband began to watch baseball again until the games were cancelled one by one because of Covid cases. The local schools push back their starting dates later and later. Restaurants reinvent themselves monthly. My writing is limited to supply lists for online orders, and my art relegated to decorating window shades with markers. My attention span is too limited and distracted for even the easy summer paperback reading.
Today I discovered that almost all of my houseplants are infested with tiny thrips that I can barely see now with my lack of close vision. My husband called it a pandemic, and I thought how appropriate, of course I need my own private pandemic on top of the national one. And then I got to thinking about other little pandemics going on around me; aphids engulfing the nasturtiums, spider mites sucking all the life out of pole beans, the usual Japanese beetle invasion and a plague of flea beetles on the arugula.
Then there’s the animal kind like the hopping hordes of rabbits (seven frolicking under our back porch one morning!), a rotating rodeo of groundhogs, voraciously domesticated deer herds and the raucous starling tenements in my neighbor’s eave.
All summer I waited patiently for a volunteer sunflower to bloom that I had moved to my front garden. It was just starting to flower when I walked by one morning to find the doomed bloom hanging by a thread, already wilting in hot summer sun, some sort of brown beetle making another fresh cut as straight as a surgeon’s incision in its stem.
My good mood deflated instantly. Was there nothing in this world allowed to achieve its full glory without threats from predators, disease and bad weather? Unwilling to accept another life derailed, I grabbed the flower after flicking off the offending bug, and brought my poor victim into the house to revive it in a vase.
From the photo above, you can see that it has continued to unfurl into a beam of light enjoyed in my dark interior, a fitting tribute to its resilience in spite of a life cut short and best laid plans gone awry. May we all find inspiration in the little accomplishments around us even as arrogant civilizations fail and topple in the storm.
June was better. The house and garage are painted, our gardens flourish and we finally enjoyed a visit from our adult offspring after months of separation. Slowly, we’re getting to know the new neighbors, and they are becoming more familiar with us. Apparently painting a house yellow inspires reactions and conversations. Perhaps yellow is friendly and welcoming, I don’t know.
Flower beds are filling up and so far the vegetable garden has managed to escape the attentions from two fairly large bucks, several groundhogs and innumerable rabbits, not to mention a family of skunks and a digging outdoor cat or two. We have not received much rain, which worries me although the nearby reservoir is still full. My spouse and I continue to order grocery and farmer’s market pickups, and wear masks to stores first thing in the morning to avoid germs and crowds. There is no end in sight.
The bright spot is that our daughter is moving to our city in July and renting a house up the street. We will be a family again and for that I am rejoicing. Sure, there will be adjustments and boundaries, but we have all missed each other terribly this spring. Her new freelance business enables her to work from home, which is a luxury these days. Not all are so lucky but for her and her parents, this is the best solution in the short term.
While I still get overwhelmed at times, the tasks are not as frustrating and futile as they were the last two years. I answer to no one as I tend my small garden that will still feed two and maybe three people nicely in the coming months. We are on a waiting list for a small chest freezer, but hopefully we can stock up on frozen vegetables and local meats before winter. There are a few perks that I miss from the country, but not enough to give up my independence.
Even in the city, nature makes its home with us. Every night, my husband and I sit and watch the fireflies flicker in the backyard, while mama skunk ushers her youngsters under the neighbor’s shed in single file. She makes sure all are accounted for. Soon, I hope to feel the same about my little family.
As I write these words at the end of May 2020, the world is on fire. From my vantage point within the confines of a small bungalow on a narrow lot in a college town fallen strangely silent since the middle of March, my state and country’s rush to reopen just as civil unrest spills into the streets resemble the torrents of broiling rapids breaking free from a dam of oppression. And at my age, I finally know better than to test those waters.
It’s no coincidence that our 1925 house was built on a hill in an area with a high water table and plenty of swampy low spots. As the climate changes, this formerly northern state harbors the southern symbols of my youth including towering rhododendrons, enormous azaleas and fragrant English boxwood. While I relive the sights and scents of childhood on restricted neighborhood walks, we continue to meet neighbors who are strangely connected to previous people and places as the past repeats itself with yet another cool, wet spring that is sure to switch to a sweltering, stormy summer in a matter of minutes as we watch our street turn into a river running down to an unknown fate that only the young will be brave enough to follow.
Waiting on the hill for the next presumed Covid wave has kept my husband and me close to home with only occasional forays to a local nursery or hardware store. The convenience of online ordering helps us with no-contact pick up at the grocery store and farmer’s market along with delivery of various goods to our doorstep. We finally invited some friends over for cocktails on our open back porch this weekend at the acceptable social distance and felt vaguely rebellious. We watch daily reports of protest from the safety of our computers and television while searching for truth in social media, an oxymoron if ever there was one.
Meanwhile, we refurbish our old house, search for scarce supplies, appliances and commodities we took for granted only months ago, live frugally, plant our garden with last year’s precious seeds and watch the lone survivors from previous gardeners emerge in our yard. So far, the remaining residents are mainly peonies with their attendant armies of ants. I’m not a huge fan of this particular perennial because of its floppy nature, but beggars can’t be choosers in this time of Corona and I am grateful for any sign of life, however myopic. As my new post-surgery vision adapts to far-sighted ugly realities, I become more appreciative of what is under my nose on a dependable high ground, no matter how humble.